Whenever people who aren’t really into comics ask me for an easy recommendation, “Chew” is always a go-to pick. It’s a fun, light-hearted read full of great comedic timing and a wild premise, and it even got me to go out and buy a beets just to see what the fuss was all about. Yes, it’s safe to say that “Chew” is just a happy, fun, enjoyable comic that you can be sure will be a great pick-me-up read every month.
And now John and Rob have fucked it all up.
As a note, this is a spoiler-free review, although some allusions are made in which things can be inferred if you’re clever (which you probably are).
Written by John Layman
Illustrated by Rob Guillory
“SPACE CAKES,” Conclusion
The bonus-sized wedding issue, CHEW’s half-way point, and the issue that is gonna take EVERYBODY by surprise. Sure, it’s a terrible jumping-on point for new readers, but did we mention the FREE TRI-FOLD POSTER COVER, at no extra cost?
In January of 2011, a book came out on stands to widespread acclaim, media attention and distributor sell-outs. It featured a prominent character in a popular title being killed, after a lengthy wire-dance sequence in which anyone’s life could’ve plausibly been taken. It was a nail biter of an issue, one that was teased in advance and highly anticipated, and the success of it largely rested not on the fact that a character was killed but rather that a great deal of time and effort was put in a slow and unassuming build-up that resulted in an overwhelmingly emotional response as the rug is pulled out from under the reader’s feet and all hope is lost — and make no more mistake, the death of optimism was the real crushing point to that book.
That book was “Fantastic Four” #587, the death of Johnny Storm. “Chew” #30? It’s like that.
This issue is very unlike the average issue of “Chew,” in that it’s actually decidedly rude. 30 issues into a series and it’s probably fair for fans to feel like they’ve got a handle on the set-up: five-issue arcs of a food-based cop comedy full of gross-out humor, great puns and a bevy of visual gags, and it’s all relatively light-hearted. This comic is a “funny”, after all, and it stands out against a sea of dark and gritty popular titles where all cops brood and no one even likes food. It’s not that “Chew” is inherently predictable or anything, either; far from it, in fact. With every arc “Chew” manages to do something new, to push the book in a different direction far from where anyone thought it might go when it came out as an unassuming creator-owned title from Image in 2009. Yet to an extent, as a consistent reader of the book you probably had the feeling that you “got” what was happening in the series. You may not know the in’s and out’s or any of the secrets, but you could throw out a guess and it would still land within the ballpark.
So the reason why this issue is rude is that there’s no reason “Chew” #30 couldn’t have been like “Chew” #29, or any other issue in the series. It has all the makings for what has made this book so revered: a hilarious introduction, a fantastic food-based gag and sharp character moments illustrated with a strong quirk-filled flair to it. Even though we knew there’d be a death in advance of the issue, it’s not like this would be the first time someone died in the pages of the book. It’d still probably be pretty funny, right? It’s always funny! Remember when Tony got beat to a pulp and hospitalized? Hilarious!! Look at us all laughing at all the silliness of “Chew!”
But no. No, this time it’s not. This is the day the laughter died.
To that end, it’s rather impressive that “Chew” #30 really does rather change things. The last milestone issue the book celebrated was at #15, which in and of itself was a big game-changer within the scope of the book, albeit to a different extent than this issue — that is to say, when you finished #15, there was still plenty to laugh and giggle about. It was confusing, sure (“Alien writing in the sky? Uh-whaaa?”), but it was all rather amusing. But as #30 reaches it’s final page, you’re left mostly with a somber feeling. What was funny on a first read is suddenly full of infinite sadness, and the issue operates off the same twist trick that “Amazing Spider-Man” #698 managed to pull on readers last week. Yet, at least with Spider-Man the second read made the issue clever; reading “Chew” #30 for a second time just sort of ruins it, because the whole thing turns out to be a very dark joke, bordering the type of thing Todd Solondz might do (see: Dark Horse). The worst part is, the book is just like the season four episode of Breaking Bad, “Face Off”: it’s all spelled out right in front of you. You just don’t understand why until it’s too late. It’s a memorial of what once was, and while #31 might kick-off with the award-winning formula “Chew” had before, the half-way point sticks out with a gravestone instead of a milestone.
And did I mention that the hope and optimism the book once had is crushed? Because it is, like an ant under a vengeful boot heel. What Layman and Guillory have essentially done with this issue is prove that “Chew” is not necessarily the book we thought it was. It’s a bastard book, a mean and cruel title that gives and gives, only to take and crush and sneer, essentially leaving you cold and alone. Given that this isn’t even the most recent book to crush reader’s dreams, you’d think we’d have learned our lesson about trusting creators by now. Yet we haven’t and we won’t, and we still get to feel sad.
That’s not a bad thing, though. Actually, that’s the best thing possible. It’s ultimately a testament to the work Layman and Guillory have done over the course of 31 issues (don’t forget that special) that a book can instill in its readers a visceral reaction when something remarkably dark does happen. What most mainstream comics suffer from is reader apathy, in that big character moments where everything changes feel meaningless since they’ll be rendered irreverent usually within a year’s time. Creator-owned titles like “Chew” operate under different principals, so when you’re given a monumental issue to this extent you don’t feel cheated; you might feel hurt, but for the most part you’re rewarded for your readership and patronage. So maybe “Chew’s” not a total bastard, but the issue is still the equivalent of your funny and usually supportive friend punching you in your sensitive area because that’s what’s funny now.
Suffice it to say, Layman absolutely nails the landing on this issue. There is a clear difficulty in balancing something like this, where you’re expected to be funny yet need to be able to effectively able to create a dire situation’s emotional gravity clearly palpable. While Layman does admittedly keep the humor running throughout the book, the parts of it that need to have a darker focus are done so with the respect for the character that only a creator can have. As odd as it may sound, it’s easy to forget how much these characters matter over the humorous situations they get entwined in, because for so long a lot of the characters had been defined by their relevant jokes (El Poyo, for example). With a story like this, however, it peels the curtain back just enough to reveal who these people are and why we’re following their collective stories, especially on a personal level. And what’s more, looking back on the road that led us here – as unclear as it was at the time – the work Layman has done with Guillory to set this story up becomes that much more obvious, to the extent that you can’t help but look back and marvel at how long this moment has been staring us in the face.
It’s Rob Guillory who is the real stand-out of the issue, however. For the most part, Guillory’s work throughout the series has reveled in the comedy of it all; Guillory’s perfect cartoonish style opened the series up to a world of amusing possibility, where a different joke unrelated to the plot could be hidden in every inch of every panel. Truth be told, a big part of reading an issue of “Chew” is closer to a game of Where’s Waldo than your average comic, as different tiny easter eggs are hidden in the background — whether it be Butters made out of butter or one of a dozen LOST references (this issue featuring a Geronimo Jackson vinyl). Yet here, while that aspect certainly remains true, suddenly a picture of Patrick Bateman in the background just isn’t that funny anymore when coupled with the horror of the scene it’s hidden in. The issue is about as graphic as “Chew” always tends to be, yet there’s a very strong tint of darkness here, and Guillory truly takes what could potentially have been played off as a joke into the book’s darkest “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” moment.
As odd as it may sound, it’s easiest to look at John Layman and Rob Guillory’s “Chew” as a version of the Joker. Sure, sometimes it’s spray-painting a museum while dancing to Prince’s “Partyman”, but you should never forget that on occasion it’s performing magic tricks and making a pencil disappear. There’s that slight angle of humor in there somewhere, but it’s mostly just horrifying and incredibly dangerous. Either way, bravo on the gravitas.
Final Verdict: 9.0 – Buy